Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friends in Tea

Last week I was at a wonderful gathering of tea ceremony practitioners called Friends in Tea. It’s not sponsored by any one organization, or even any one school of tea ceremony – it’s a group of people who volunteer to put together a gathering every two years, always in a different place.

This time the gathering was held at the Dai Botsatsu Zendo, a Buddhist monastery in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. The setting is remote (about 20 miles from the nearest town, which itself is not that big) and beautiful – the monastery and its guest house overlook Beecher Lake, so named because the property used to be owned by the Beecher family (of Harriett Beecher Stowe fame).

The gathering was four days of workshops, discussions, and people doing tea for each other. Most of the participants had studied tea for a while, and so the idea behind the teas was not to worry about doing things perfectly, but to have fun drinking tea together. Some people got up at 6 a.m. to do chabako (picnic-style tea) outside; some people took tatami mats out to the patio to do tea out there. But probably my favorite story is about Eido Roshi coming for tea.

Eido Roshi is the head of the monastery and its partner Zen center in New York City. Whenever he comes into the room, everything else stops. He and some of the monks were invited to the opening tea gathering, but mid-way through the conference he paid us a surprise visit. Down in the main room of the guest house we had sign-up sheets for our “open tearoom” – people could sign up to either make tea or be a guest at someone else’s tea, depending on their preference. Roshi had signed up as a guest in a blank spot, meaning nobody had signed up to be a host yet. So, of course, we were obliged to find someone to make tea for him. No problem; we’re all tea people. The lucky host was Marjorie Yap, a tea teacher from Portland. However…

The open tearoom space was split into two sections. On one side was Roshi’s tea. On the other side, one of the other participants had signed up to do another tea. Now, I heard the stories afterwards second-hand, because I wasn’t there, but the way I heard it, while Roshi was sitting at a very quiet and serious koicha (thick tea) temae, on the other side of a set of shoji screens the second group was laughing and having a good time drinking usucha. Apparently every once in a while Roshi would look around as if to say, “Hey, I want to be over there where they’re having fun!”

After Roshi’s tea was finished, he came over to the other tea and sat in for a bit. They were using a huge Shino-ware bowl that actually belonged to Roshi’s personal collection (and which he allowed us to use for the conference). He told us that he had named the bowl “macho.” It’s not what you’re thinking. “Ma” here means “devil,” and “cho” means “transparent.” The idea is that drinking from the bowl makes your evil impulses fade more and more until they’re completely gone. (No word yet on whether it worked.)

More from Friends in Tea in posts to come…


apoorva said...
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Sweetpersimmon said...

It was fabulous to meet you and do tea together. Roshi commented when I made koicha for him that I made the safe choice of bowl. When I heard the story, Roshi said that the more you use the bowl, the more your devil nature becomes at first translucent and then transparent. He said that he just named the bowl that morning, because someone told him that one had to be macho to use such a large bowl. He laughed and laughed about it. Thank you for everything.